Sep 19, 2012

Population: 1

As much as I despise musicals, especially those made during the decisively dreadful and innately soulless 1980s, I cannot help declare my forbidden love for the melodious and misanthropic dystopian punk rock sci-fi musical Population: 1 (1986) directed by Dutch auteur Rene Daalder (Habitat, Hysteria) and starring Tomata du Plenty, an early member of the ultra-campy psychedelic drag-queen troupe The Cockettes and singer of the seminal synthpunk band the Screamers. Although I have known for some time that Daalder is an eclectic and multitalented filmmaker due the stark contrast between his early Meyer-esque exploitation flick Massacre at Central High (1976) and his more recent documentary Here is Always Somewhere Else (2007) – a very personal work about the director’s forlorn friend Bas Jan Ader – it was not until I viewed Population: 1 that I realized that the flying Dutchman should have a much more illustrious and popular filmmaking career, at least among dedicated cinephiles. Essentially, like The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) meets Liquid Sky (1982) meets Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) meets The Running Man (1987), except on an expertly-disguised micro-budget, Population: 1 is probably the best (and only) example of an 'arthouse punk' flick. Utilizing a surprisingly peachy pomo potpourri of utterly new and then-high-tech video technology, archived concert footage, animated nudes, and vintage silent film and newsreel clips, Population: 1 is a positively punchy postmodern punk rock musical that – when compared to the ‘artistic integrity’ of punk movie classics like Ulli Lommel’s Blank Generation (1980), Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (1984) and Zale Dalen’s Terminal City Ricochet (1990) – seems like a misunderstood masterpiece among mindless mediocrity. Originally encountering the punk scene after his teacher Russ Meyer asked him to work on the never-made film Who Killed Bambi? (1978), a cinematic work intended as a punk rock equivalent of The Beatles’ A Hard Day's Night (1964) and a quasi-sequel to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) that was also co-written by Roger Ebert, Daalder set-up “Sex Pistols USA” headquarters in his house in LA and eventually ended up meeting and befriending Tomata du Plenty and the two decided to collaborate on a conceptual 'music-video album' and a post-apocalyptic arthouse flick entitled Mensch in the style of German expressionist works like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); none of which came to fruition. Picking up the scraps from the aborted music-videos and footage Daalder filmed for The Screamers concerts at the Whisky and Roxy in LA and working fast after du Plenty was diagnosed HIV positive, the two eventually assembled the 60-minute semi-futuristic feature Population: 1, which is quite arguably the most ambitious and experimental punk film ever made and a vivid and witty piece of early video art.

Population: 1 is a virtual one-man show that stars Tomata du Plenty as the satirically narcissistic host, a typically nauseating product of the 1980s and a positively positive (even when complaining) yet uniquely uncivil civil servant (a defense contractor) and the purported last man who earth who describes his coming-of-age as being chronicled in the novels Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and the classic Hollywood film East of Eden (1955) starring James Dean. Population: 1 essentially consists of du Plenty going on an erratic and somewhat preachy yet pleasantly peculiar spiel about his life and memories, and an iconoclastic history lesson about the United Sates, hence why the films features a picturesque pastiche of concert footage and old newsreel excerpts.  Indeed, long before Robert Zemeckis ever chronicled the history of social change in twentieth century America through the countrified eyes of a cutesy Alabama-born mental-invalid via Forrest Gump (1994), Rene Daalder was able to superimpose images of modern actors over seemingly ancient historical film footage. Like Mr. Gump, du Plenty is a hopeless romantic at heart that that is most impassioned when speaking of his steamy love affair with his sometimes hostile girlfriend Sheela Edwards. Although not particularly beautiful nor elegant, Edwards – who looks like should could be Alla Nazimova's more vicious, long-lost great-granddaughter – is a seductive singer and a ferocious femme fatale as especially exemplified by her cover of Marion Harriss’ 1920 hit “I’m a Jazz Vampire.” A proudly emasculated American male in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino, but nowhere near as attractive and charming, du Plenty sings feminist duets with Ms. Edwards and allows her to physically pummel him when not on stage, thereupon sparking mass effiminization in American males; or so he says in an awfully proud, pussified manner. Showing his dedication to the American anti-fascist cause, du Plenty, although a cowardly draft-dodger, also shares his scarlet lady with American troops during the Second World War. Of course, not all of du Plenty’s memories are as fond as he would like them to be, especially in regard to his stay with fellow chosen “elites” in a New Wavish cabaret-like atomic bomb shelter. The final 1/3 of Population: 1 also happens to be one of the most interesting segments of the film, featuring appearances from Beck (then-12-years-old), Vampira (Maila Nurmi), El Duce (The Screamers, The Mentors), Penelope Houston (The Avengers), members of the Chicano rock group Los Lobos, and Dutch actor Carel Struycken (“Lurch” of The Addams Family film series), among others. On top of playing an acting role in the film, The Screamers drummer K. K. Barrett also worked as the art director for Population: 1. Barrett’s spectacular work in the film must have gotten someone’s attention, as he went on to be a production designer for such big name Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola films as Being John Malkovich (1999), Lost in Translation (2003), I ♥ Huckabees (2004), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009). Needless to say, aside from being a outstandingly ostentatious and totally outlandish pioneering work of vivacious video art, Population: 1 is a virtual who’s who of popular and not-so-popular American musicians and artists, thus it should be no surprise that MTV would subsequently borrow its audio/visual aesthetic from the film.

Not unsurprisingly, Population: 1 is far from every The Screamers fan’s favorite film as the work is regarded as the motivating factor behind the band's messy and irreparable breakup. Originally, Tommy Gear – the keyboardist, vocalist, and co-songwriter of The Screamers – was supposed to compose the musical score for Population: 1, but he inevitably walked off the set of the film midway through its production in a most histrionic fashion after getting in a number of back-and-forth cavils with Tomata du Plenty. Some blame director Rene Daalder for this, as it has been claimed by certain individuals that he pitted the band members against one another so as to have greater artistic control over the production. Whatever the reality behind this claim, one would have a hard time denying that Population: 1, even with its many famous/infamous actors and megalomaniac lead character, is essentially an auteur-piece created by a filmmaker with a very specific and utterly uncompromising vision, henceforth it would also be misleading to describe the film as mere ‘punk rock musical.’ Indeed, Population: 1 has pioneering punks as actors and memorable musical numbers, but it is barely the sort of work that can be appreciated, let alone adequately gauged by the average glue-sniffing philistine with a retarded haircut. 

-Ty E

No comments: